In 2002, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart shook up the world of sustainability with their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. It proposed a radical rethinking, not just of human manufacturing, but of the way humans relate to the earth. Rather than simply reducing the harm we do, humans could become a source of health, a positive force in the world. The iconic example was a tree. A tree is not "efficient," it is abundant, generative, sustaining its own growth while supporting the health of the ecosystem around it.
Humans, McDonough and Braungart suggested, could be like trees. Everything we create could be composed either of biological nutrients, would could be abandoned to biodegrade without harm, or technical nutrients, which could be reused again and again without loss of quality. The authors backed up their ideas with numerous well-known projects and a cradle-to-cradle certification process for products that matched their strict criteria.
Now the two have a new book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability -- Designing for Abundance, which applies the lessons learned in the ensuing decade to larger projects and systems. I called McDonough to chat with him about the ideas in the new book.
Q. What do you mean by "upcycle"?
A. We often talk about recycling, but we're actually not. We are downcycling. Take a plastic water bottle. If we recycle it into a park bench, it's actually downcycling, from a quality perspective. I've reused the molecules, so that's recycling polymer. But I've reduced its qualities, because I mixed it with other things, hybridized it, let's say, with other polymers and various dyes and finishes. The flower pot I made it into is going to a landfill, or potentially an incinerator. It's downcycling, cascading down in quality, from cradle to grave, or cradle to crematorium.